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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut government officials and educators are crediting a variety of efforts for a significant decrease in arrests at schools across the state over the past several years.
About 1,400 arrests at schools were referred to state juvenile courts in the last school year, about 260 fewer than the 2011-2012 year.
Educators say studies show kids placed into the juvenile justice system are more likely to reoffend and less likely to graduate from high school and get jobs.
While juvenile arrests have decreased about 46 percent nationwide and 59 percent in Connecticut over the past decade — mirroring a national decline in crime — state officials say there has been growing concern about increasing numbers of kids arrested in schools for minor offenses.
Officials cite a proliferation in zero-tolerance policies and more police officers stationed in schools in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
In 2011, the state Judicial Branch informed all school superintendents and police chiefs in Connecticut that it was going to begin rejecting referrals to Juvenile Court for minor misbehavior like fighting and disobeying teachers, said Cathy Foley Geib, manager of clinical and education services for the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division.
"Being arrested and referred to court as a kid can be really traumatic," Foley Geib said. "If it's for something minor that's in line with typical adolescent development ... why criminalize that? Why indoctrinate them into the legal system?
"If those kind of minor behaviors can be addressed at the local level ... that's much better for the community and much better for the kids," she said.
Officials say cities and towns have increased the number of juvenile review boards to handle troubled students in the community.
Twenty-one schools in 10 districts in the state also have participated in the Connecticut School-Based Diversion Initiative, a program that brings together educators, police, mental health providers and community organizations in efforts to reduce school arrests and find alternatives to expulsions and out-of-school suspensions.
"There's clearly a direct connection between keeping kids in school and seeing them succeed," said Jeana Bracey of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, the project coordinator for the School-Based Diversion Initiative.
Bracey said schools participating in the initiative usually see a 45 percent reduction in student referrals to Juvenile Court in the first year.
The initiative, which began in 2009, is among dozens across the country that have been supported by a $100 million national juvenile justice reform effort started over a decade ago by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
At Hartford's Sarah J. Rawson School, there were 13 student arrests in the 2011-2012 school year but only one the following year, after it had joined the initiative.
"Considering we are pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and we had 13 arrests ... that was a pretty alarming number," Dean of Students Michael Valerio said.
In the 2011-2012 school year when there were 13 arrests, school officials made 13 student referrals to community support and service programs. Last school year, there were 52 referrals to community programs and only two referrals to Juvenile Court.
"It's palpable," Valerio said of the improvements and how children are treated. "The school is such a calmer environment. It's not all about punishment and discipline anymore. It's about solving the problem."
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